What Chance a “Real” Possibility?

Yesterday ABC aired a two hour special “Earth 2100,” a “worst case scenario” of global warning disaster:

The scenarios in Earth 2100 are not a prediction of what will happen but rather a warning about what might happen. They are based on the work of some of the world’s top scientists and experts. …  Though there is some disagreement about the specifics, there is widespread agreement among the 50-plus experts we spoke to in the course of our 18 months working on this show that if we do not change course in the near future, the collapse of our civilization is a real possibility.

Elsewhere they call it a “very real possibility.”  But after all that work, they can’t bring themselves to say just how likely this disaster would be, if we do not change course.  A median of the 50 experts’ probability estimates (of a scenario this bad or worse) would have been fine.  Many of us are willing to chance a one in a billion possibility, but not a one in ten possibility; so what exactly is a “real” or “very real” possibility?

The show tracks a fictional Lucy, born in 2009.   When the story reaches 2030, the narrator says:

So what else will normal in 2030? The temperature will be warmer, about one and a half degree Fahrenheit, enough to dramatically alter the planet’s weather and rainfall.  Canada and Siberia for example will be wetter and hotter.  But for much of the rest of the world, rain will be scarce.  So will its most basic need, water.  By 2030 two thirds of the world’s population will be under water stress.

Lucy says:

In San Diego, they were ahead of the game. In 2009 they had starting building huge desalination plants. It took 20 years and billions of dollars, but it worked. The massive plants on the ocean turned salt water into fresh, and the city’s water supply was restored.  400 miles inland though, they were running out, and no one had enough money to build a pipe that long.  … Three days after Tuscon’s taps ran dry they finally got relief … What happened there scared the whole country.  In San Diego, when the private companies who desalinated our water used Tuscon as an excuse, and jacked up our water prices, I decided enough was enough. I went to a rally. A man standing next to me saw me yelling and said “I’m glad you’re on our side.” To make a short story even shorter, we fell in love on this spot.  Two months later, Josh and I were married; a year later, our daughter Molly was born, and full of red hair.  And the desalination companies? They backed down; we had won.

Josh and I had friends who, like us, were determined to re-imagine the future.  We were all of us optimists.  Some worked on solar plants in the desert, others tinkered with super efficient cars …

Lucy is presented sympathetically, even heroically.  So it is striking that the story doesn’t note how wrong were her actions.  The story complains the world did too little to prepare, but for the one example shown of firms preparing in hope of profits, the story celebrates stealing those profits.  But firms who anticipated such theft would probably not invest in such preparations.

Why so oblivious?  The obvious explanation, I think, is that viewers know deep down that what really matters to youthful protesters is not policy consequences but mating opportunities, which Lucy realized in full.  And I suspect a similar reason is behind why no probability was offered.  The show isn’t about helping people make a reasoned calculation, but about getting a repented-at-church-and-feeling-much-better moral purity experience.  Knowing that you agonized about our future and reaffirmed your vows at the church of green, you can now mate freely with similar others, comfortingly confident that they really care, and are one of “us.”

Politics is not about policy, after all.

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